Podcast • August 26, 2013

Paul Harding, Transcendentalist, From Tinkers to Enon

Short form: Tinkers was no fluke — the little gem of a novel that caught a word-of-mouth wave and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010; it’s the snowy paperback still stacked like bait around the ...

Short form: Tinkers was no fluke — the little gem of a novel that caught a word-of-mouth wave and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010; it’s the snowy paperback still stacked like bait around the cash register of every bookstore I go into. Enon is Paul Harding’s spooky, Hawthorny and thoroughly worthy sequel three years later. The story lurches into sudden death and a year of dissolute darkness among descendants of that Crosby family of peddlers and mechanics out of the Maine backwoods. Enon is set in the semi-rural suburbs of Boston; it’s a present-day ghost story, a sad one at that. But there’s a strong continuity in the quirky traditions of the Crosby clan, as well as in the uncommonly thoughtful craft of the author. In my reading, Enon cements Paul Harding’s place as a true prince of New England letters, spiritual heir to Emerson and Thoreau, close student of Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens. As Tinkers revealed, Harding is a Transcendentalist for our time, in Emerson’s definition of the type: “He believes in miracle, in the perpepetual openness of the human mind to new influx of light and power; he believes in inspiration, and in ecstasy.” In Enon, the 30-something protagonist Charlie Crosby, unhinged at the loss of his 13-year-old daughter, could remind you of Emerson himself in the essay “Experience,” recounting his soul’s disarray after the death of his boy Waldo, of scarlet fever, in 1842. In an uncannily Emersonian summing up at the end of Enon, Charlie Crosby says: “I am a connoisseur of the day. Sometimes I sit in tears. Sometimes I sit in a wordless, inexplicable kind of brokenhearted joy.” Listening to Paul Harding read, I keep hearing another great teacher, the immortal jazz drummer Elvin Jones of the classic Coltrane quartet. Paul Harding was a touring rock drummer in his time, and an Elvin worshipper. In our first conversation four years ago, Paul observed that the differences between drumming and writing are superficial. “Having been a drummer, I write by ear. I write by rhythm, you know,” he said. So the reader keeps listening for Elvin in Enon, and I hear lots of him — when, for example, Charlie remembers his boyhood rounds learning clock-repair from his grandfather.

I inserted the key into the keyhole and opened the door. The old air fell out of the clock, dry, held in the cubic shape of the case for who knows how many years until I opened the door and it collapsed out into the contemporary atmosphere, distinct and nearly colonial for a moment… I lifted the lead weight and unhooked it from its pulley wheel. It felt like removing the heavy heart of the clock. I laid the weight on a rug at the foot of the stairs. It thudded onto the wool like an object from another, outsized planet with twice the gravity of our own. A heavy leaded heart, I thought. That has to do, too, with the burning ember in the center of the house.

Charlie Crosby, on his apprenticeship with George Washington Crosby, his grandfather in Enon, Chapter 2.

Isn’t he still writing rhythms, I asked.

Absolutely. I think, going back to Emerson, of fully inhabiting the moment and the idea of improvisation: when you’re a musician or a writer or a painter or a dancer, you translate the experience of that moment into your medium at a high level of improvisation. If you’re Elvin Jones, and you’re trying to make art that will engage the complexity of the human mind, you’re using all four limbs and all sorts of different tempos and textures and juxtapositions to make this elegant whole. That’s what I think of trying to do with writing, and what better medium than language – the medium that has the capacity to hold in itself all the complexity to satisfy an engaged and amenable reader? I’m thinking lyrically, trying to find the time signature, the meter of description. It’s a kind of advance and retreat, maybe it’s in free verse or free time, maybe a little bit more like Ornette Coleman, again it’s the tentativeness, the improvisation. When I read that out loud, sometimes I don’t know where the beats are going to land, because rereading them is just like the process of writing them, and when I wrote them I didn’t know where I was going to land either…

Paul Harding, in conversation with Chris Lydon in Essex, Massachusetts, August 2013.

This is the way a modern Transcendentalist writes. There are hearts in his clocks, and souls in his characters, both living and dead.

Podcast • March 3, 2011

Andre Dubus III: How “The Fighter” Became The Writer

Andre Dubus III has written a Dickensian memoir in a Mark Wahlberg sort of setting. Townie is the tale of a bullied little boy (eldest son of a Louisiana family in a broken-down Massachusetts mill ...


Andre Dubus III has written a Dickensian memoir in a Mark Wahlberg sort of setting. Townie is the tale of a bullied little boy (eldest son of a Louisiana family in a broken-down Massachusetts mill town) becoming, first, a one-punch knockout street fighter, and later a National Book Award finalist for The House of Sand and Fog. Strangely, beautifully, painfully along the way, he finds himself coming into the same demanding vocation — writing — that had drawn his famous father away from a severely neglected family.

The story unfolds in the 1970s along the Merrimack River, just downstream from the scene of Wahlberg’s almost-Oscar movie, “The Fighter.” We’re in the same rough bars with the same wacko clans, hearing the same bad Boston accents — his friend Cleary says he’s always “hawny in the mawning.” As in Dickens, we are confronting social squalor in the home of the great imperial nation and wondering where the glory went — or where it is hiding in the town, even now.

There’s a lot of wondrously authentic energy in Andre Dubus’s voice, on the page and in our conversation. I remarked to him: Townie reads like David Copperfield, with heaps of crystal meth, junk TV, Fritos and Vietnam thrown in. He’s speaking here about his own memory of metamorphosis, as the crysalis of the thug breaks and the artist starts to spread his wings:

It’s something that was semi-conscious, this thought of the membrane in my life, and then became more clarified as I began to describe it in this book. … One thing that I realized, I would see people that weren’t experienced fighters, and they would do this shoving match thing: “Oh yeah? Oh yeah?” Experienced fighters don’t do any foreplay; once they know it’s a fight situation they pound you in the face as hard as they can. … Once you learn how do it, that psychological hymen in you is always broken. You can always do it. Once you break through it you’ll know how to do it and you’ll keep doing it. And that’s the barrier; once you learn to cross that you can fight.

But to the writing: I had a very interesting, strange experience when I first began to write. It felt so familiar, and I couldn’t quite place what it was. But it was another kind of membrane, where I was allowing myself to seep into the being, into the private skin of another, an imaginary other. I had to somehow disappear to become them, in the same way as a fighter. I had to let my fear of my safety disappear and my sense of myself disappear.

Andre Dubus III in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, March 1, 2011.

Podcast • June 10, 2009

Thoreau’s Fire: the Spark of "Walden"

Baskin’s Thoreau: nickel first-class (1967) Is it too late to celebrate Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862) with an honest, unblushing American face? Have we laid too much pavement, built too many Cheesecake Factories in ...
Baskin’s Thoreau: nickel first-class (1967)

Is it too late to celebrate Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862) with an honest, unblushing American face? Have we laid too much pavement, built too many Cheesecake Factories in too many malls, imprisoned and executed too many harmless rejects and overextended our military rule too far ever to put Thoreau on our postage again?

That’s the major reservation in this otherwise festive gab about the making of one of the universally cherished American writing minds, Henry David Thoreau – to this day an exemplar of simplicity, conscience, naturalism, non-conformity, the power of solitude and great prose.

John Pipkin’s argument in the form of a novel, Woodsburner, is that what fired young Thoreau to bust out of his father’s pencil factory, to hole up in the woods of Concord, Massachusetts and eventually to write the secular scripture known as Walden, was strangely enough, a real raging wildfire that Thoreau himself carelessly started – a fire that burned 300 acres and could have destroyed his town.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversations with John Pipkin about young Henry David Thoreau. (31 minutes, 14 mb mp3)

John Pipkin: never too late

John Pipkin’s take is that the fire in fact rescued the 26-year-old Thoreau from what was beginning to look like a life of failure. With his doomed brother John, Henry had paddled through their famous week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, but he hadn’t yet composed any of its signature wisdom. As for instance: ” …steady labor with the hands, which engrosses the attention also, is unquestionably the best method of removing palaver and sentimentality out of one’s style, both of speaking and writing.”

It was the shock and embarrassment of the fire he started — the “woodsburner!” whispers in Concord — that got Thoreau in gear as a writer, Pipkin supposes. The Pipkin premise makes Thoreau (who admitted being thrilled by the blaze) more socially sensitive than the “hermit and stoic” that Emerson recalled in his brilliant memorial essay. “It cost him nothing to say No,” Emerson wrote. “Indeed, he found it much easier than to say Yes… Hence, no equal companion stood in affectionate relations with one so pure and guileless. ‘I love Henry,’ said one of his friends, ‘but I cannot like him; and as for taking his arm, I should as soon think of taking the arm of an elm-tree.'”

Whatever effect the fire had on Thoreau, it may have been part of what prompted Emerson to buy the land at Walden Pond where he then invited his friend to build his writing camp. Even then they were both vexed by the intrusion of the railroad through Concord and the pace of “development” in their woods. So the fire makes a plausible moment to reimagine the hatching of American doctrine.

John Pipkin (born in Baltimore, now a Texan) was a student at the University of North Carolina of Philip Gura, keeper of the Transcendentalist flame. Professor Gura’s lament on Open Source not so long ago was that we have traduced Thoreau and Emerson not just by ignoring their earnest advice but spinning them into literary abstractions. Pipkin’s rejoinder is that the environmental emergency arrived with the first European settlers in America and that the model activist, even at this late date, is still Thoreau. “He was the attorney of the indigenous plants,” as Emerson said, “and owned to a preference of the weeds to the imported plants, as of the Indian to the civilized man.”

Podcast • May 7, 2009

Paul Harding’s Magical ‘Tinkers’

What is the rock drummer thinking? Well, if he’s the dazzling first-novelist Paul Harding of Tinkers, the guy at the drums in the band known as “Cold Water Flat” was channeling Elvin Jones, reinventing time ...

Paul HardingWhat is the rock drummer thinking? Well, if he’s the dazzling first-novelist Paul Harding of Tinkers, the guy at the drums in the band known as “Cold Water Flat” was channeling Elvin Jones, reinventing time with his own hands and feet on drumsticks and pedals. He was listening to hear how sound works, how the world works, how he works. He may have been composing a contrapuntal bit of narrative that turns up on paper in this exchange between an itinerant mule-and-cart peddlar named Howard Aaron Crosby and his customers in the backwoods of Maine, circa 1900.

Where’s the soap?

This is the soap.

The box is different.

Yes, they changed it.

What was wrong with the old box?

Nothing.

Why’d they change it?

Because the soap is better.

The soap is different?

Better.

Nothing wrong with the old soap.

Of course not, but this is better.

Nothing wrong with the old soap. How can it be better?

Well, it cleans better.

Cleaned fine before.

This cleans better — and faster.

Well, I’ll just take a box of the normal soap.

This is the normal soap now.

I can’t get my normal soap?

This is the normal soap; I guarantee it.

Well I don’t like to try a new soap.

It’s not new.

Just as you say, Mr. Crosby. Just as you say.

Well, ma’am, I need another penny.

Another penny? For what?

The soap is a penny more, now that it’s better.

I have to pay a penny more for different soap in a blue box? I’ll just take a box of my normal soap.

From Tinkers by Paul Harding, pages 13 – 14. Bellevue Literary Press, New York, 2009.

Paul Harding’s prose in that moment can remind you of Marshall Dodge’s old “Bert and I” Maine stories. It can also sound like music: “Tinker, tinker. Tin, tin, tin. Tintinnabulation. There was the ring of pots and buckets…” We hear light percussive sounds of a human voice, repetitions finding a rhythm. We hear a musician becoming a writer — not a wild a leap, he observes in conversation.

The differences between being a rock drummer and writing are superficial. The obvious ones: you’re playing with a couple of other people on stage, and you’re doing it at an ungodly volume. I’m clinically half deaf and I have tinnitus and a ringing in my ear all the time. But writing scratches the same itch… Having been a drummer I write by ear. I write by rhythm, you know. I just think of the rhythm of the sentence, and there’s a certain number of beats in a sentence, in a phrase, in longer passages. So there’s a kind of arranging. And then certainly in all these multigenerational things going on in Tinkers, I’m just fascinated by the experience of time, of being in time, and all these characters thinking about time and all that. As a drummer… you can futz around with all sorts of time signatures and all sorts of beats. You can play a time signature within another time signature. You can do all that sort of stuff. It’s all narrative, and narrative is all about time. So that’s what you’re doing with the writing, too.

I saw Elvin Jones of the famous Coltrane quartet several dozen times and had the opportunity to sit right in front of him and watch what he did with time. He could tap into the depths of the universe… Drumming is multi-tasking, it’s orchestration. You think of it as a string quartet — in the way you can play counterpoint with yourself, with your own different limbs, that kind of thing. I think of that as the way of making narrative, too. Any given scene has different strata. You can have things moving very nimbly, very quickly in one level of the writing, with larger, deeper cycles going on beneath. And you can work all that contrast and counterpoint. It’s the way you actually pull depth and dimensionality out of things.

Paul Harding in conversation with Chris Lydon, in Essex, Massachusetts, May 5, 2009.

Paul Harding is also a self-taught modern New England transcendentalist, out of the Thoreau and Emerson school, who read his way into an original inner life. Marilynne Robinson at the Iowa Writers Workshop eased his transition from the drums to the keyboard. He’s read everything — been touched by Henry James and Proust and Carlos Fuentes and Michael Ondatje, among others — and he’s taught writing at Harvard.

Tinkers — as in country peddlars between the 19th and early 20th centuries — is an almost plotless novel, constructed as carefully as a clock, about fathers dying, thinking about their sons, and their fathers. It is a marvel on every page.

Podcast • March 3, 2009

Blindspot: Lepore and Kamensky in Olde Boston

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore. (45 minutes, 21 mb mp3) Kamensky & Lepore: 2 madwomen, 1 attic Blindspot is a lark, with lessons. First, about sex and slavery ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore. (45 minutes, 21 mb mp3)

Kamensky & Lepore: 2 madwomen, 1 attic

Blindspot is a lark, with lessons. First, about sex and slavery in 18th Century Boston, where you didn’t expect to find so much of either. And then, about the writing of serious history as delicious fiction.

Blindspot was undertaken as an experiment, something of an email joke, by ranking professionals who’ve been friends since grad school (Yale): Jane Kamensky, now at Brandeis, and Jill Lepore, of Harvard and The New Yorker magazine.

Told in letters and journals, Blindspot, set in 1764, is a borderline kinky love story about a Scots portrait painter (think: Gilbert Stuart) who’s fled his London debts to Boston, and a passionate, downwardly-mobile 19-year-old daughter of the Boston ruling class who presents herself as a boy so as to get a job as the painter’s assistant. Get it? Frances Easton goes to work as Francis Weston for the portraitist Stewart Jameson. She falls in love with him, of course, and he with her — or him, as he supposes through most of the narrative. Fanny writes: “I felt full prepared to open myself to him, in whatever direction he wanted, Easton or Weston.”

But Blindspot is also an argument about history and the writing thereof:

18th Century novelists called their books ‘histories.’ You know, Tom Jones is “The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling.” Fielding insisted that Tom Jones was a history and that what historians wrote was made up, that it was so contrived to be answerable to the surviving set of facts that could be lined up and arranged in any which way that its reliability is fundamentally questionable. It comes from Aristotle’s Poetics to make this claim — that to make something up that has universal truth because it’s about humanity was the true reform of historical writing. And it wasn’t just Fielding who made this claim. This was the argument of 18th Century novelists from Defoe on; and it was an argument they had with historians like Hume… That is a piece of intellectual work that Simon Schama took up when he called for a return to narrative history in the 1980s and 1990s…

Jill Lepore in conversation with Chris Lydon, February 27, 2009

I think our agent was hoping that Blindspot would generate the kind of controversy that Simon Schama’s Dead Certainties generated in the 1990s. I remember Gordon Wood writing an extremely angry brief in the New York Review of Books called ‘Novel History‘ — about how dare a historian do such a thing. To the extent we’ve had reaction from our colleagues — and we didn’t write it for our colleagues — it’s been very positive… I’ve been asked by a graduate student: is this something that every historian should try? And I’ve said: I don’t know, maybe every historian should take up tennis.

Jane Kamensky in conversation with Chris Lydon, February 27, 2009

The itch that Blindspot scratches for me is the appetite for history in the manner of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Hugo’s Les Miserables or, in our own day, Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies — which is to say, grand, teeming, historically informed but imaginative narratives that speak to the contemporary national and global crisis.

What Dickens, Tolstoy and Hugo have in common is that, like a Breughel painting, they’re crowded with life. I can’t think of things in the 19th Century American literary tradition that do that. Maybe Harriet Beecher Stowe. But that sort of teeming, crowd-centered urban history that tackles a political event from below is not for the most part an American tradition.

Jane Kamensky in conversation with Chris Lydon, February 27, 2009

Why is that? … Where is our Dickens? It’s a really interesting question…

Jill Lepore in conversation with Chris Lydon, February 27, 2009

Blindspot can be taken as a shot at answering it.

Podcast • July 3, 2008

What would Roger Williams say… and do?

Roger Williams In celebration of the Fourth of July, despite everything… Martha Nussbaum revives a dreamy vision of religious freedom. Jeff Sharlet paints the real bathos of our adapted political piety. I join them both ...
roger williams

Roger Williams

In celebration of the Fourth of July, despite everything… Martha Nussbaum revives a dreamy vision of religious freedom. Jeff Sharlet paints the real bathos of our adapted political piety. I join them both in the pleasure of rediscovering Roger Williams (1603 – 1683) as a neglected American model of real religion, real freedom, real tolerance. As Martha Nussbaum reminds us, Roger Williams was English-born, a friend and contemporary of John Milton. He came to America — and from Massachusetts to the colony he founded in Providence, Rhode Island — in flight from meddlesome Puritans. His affinity for the Narragansett Indians, and his sense of the injustice that the settlers were inflicting on Indian property and humanity, sharpened his educated understanding of the rights of the individual spirit.

And so he developed a view of conscience – which I think is really attractive – which is that every human being has within themselves something very precious which he called conscience, which is a capacity to seek for the ultimate meaning of life in your own way. And the thought is that we all have this equally; whether we’re using it right or wrong, it ought to be respected. And respecting it means giving it lots of space to pursue its own way and not establishing an orthodoxy that squeezes it. He had two really neat images for religious intolerance. One of them was imprisonment, as consciences were imprisoned all over the world. And the other, even more striking one was rape. Consciences were being raped. He called it “soule rape” when somebody sets up a religious orthodoxy and denies a space to others to find their own way.

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum of Liberty of Conscience in conversation with Jeff Sharlet and Chris Lydon, July 1, 2008.
Jeff Sharlet

Jeff Sharlet

We’ve gone irreparably too far. I don’t like the word theocracy; I

don’t think we ever will be a theocracy, but we have severe establishment and we will have establishment of a religion that’s very comfortable with the status quo. It’s a religion of what is, and it’s a religion that shuts down dissent and it’s a religion that shuts down prophetic voices as well. Yes, I think we’ve gone irreparably too far in the United States, but that doesn’t mean that we stop speaking and living and dissenting – and for those of us who feel religious, speaking in prophetic terms, and for those of us who don’t, speaking in political terms. Hope is something that you have when you have a situation that reason doesn’t quite support, so we have to be hopeful. We have irreparably established a certain kind of religion in American life so there’s no going back. I think there’s only moving forward until we get to a country that Roger Williams would like to live in.

Journalist Jeff Sharlet of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power and The Revealer in conversation with Martha Nussbaum and Chris Lydon, July 1, 2008.